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Marla, chief technology officer for a mid-size software company, was talking with Tony, a peer head of engineering at another local software company. They had met at a networking event some time back and were slowly evolving a friendship.

“It’s becoming clear to me that change and decision management are my principal focus areas,” Marla related to Tony. “Coaching those is the core of what I provide to my team and company. But, I don’t have any formal training in any of these.”

“’Any’ being change management, decision management, and coaching?” Tony asked.

“That’s right,” Marla confirmed. “I’m wondering whether I should get formal certification in each of them. Give my team some confidence I know what I’m doing.”

“What is leading you to question your team’s confidence in your leadership?”

“What?” Marla asked, surprised. “I’m not questioning their confidence in me.”

“Well, I just heard you say you’re considering getting certification to give your team confidence.”

“So I did,” Marla said, nonplussed. “Now I’m questioning my leadership ability.”

“I don’t think you need to question that. But, if you’d like to dig into that, I’d be happy to help.”

“I guess I’d better.”

Offer your help

“How would you like to start?” Marla asked Tony.

“You’ve voiced a lack of confidence in yourself, and concern that your team has a similar lack of confidence in your skills. You also mentioned certifications. Do any of those feel more important right now?”

Marla considered a moment. “Lack of confidence from my team. I hadn’t realized that was a worry for me. Let’s start there.”

“Okay. What are you sensing that’s telling you that your team is not fully confident in your ability to lead them?”

“Well, hmm. No one ever comes to me asking for help. It’s always me going to them offering it.”

“How do you make that offer?”

“I have regular one-on-ones with my immediate staff, skip-level one-on-ones with most of their staff, and occasional meetings with the people one or two levels below that. I always begin these by asking what is on their mind and then listening to what they say. I try to repeat what they say back to me with a little rephrasing, to check that I’m understanding them correctly. Sometimes they have a clear problem on their mind, and I probe into what they’re thinking. Other times, I can tell they are anxious about something they aren’t bringing up. I poke around a bit to try to identify what that is. Once I do, I’m back to probing into their thoughts.”

“So, you never come right out and ask whether they’d like help working through the issue, nor do you bludgeon them with advice,” Tony said.

“I would never have thought to put it into those words, but, yes. I try really hard to balance staying on top of everything going on and taking care of problems while they’re small with not inflicting help.”

“That’s a tricky balance,” Tony agreed. “Would you like a suggestion?”

“Yes, please. Make all the suggestions you like.”

“Explicitly ask whether they would like help.”

“Like you just did, when you asked me whether I would like a suggestion.”

“Yep, just like that. You can be even more explicit about it: ask, ‘Would you like some help with that?’ Then, if they answer ‘Yes,’ you have their permission to delve in deeper. If they respond with a ‘No,’ then you don’t have their permission.”

Construct guardrails to keep your teams safe

“And I’m supposed to just roll over and let them wander through the problem on their own?”

“Not at all. You still are responsible for protecting against the problems you can foresee.”

“So how am I supposed to protect against a problem they won’t let me help with?”

“Make clear your own concern: that you want to ensure you have guardrails in place in case things go off the rails.”

“Hmm…” Marla mused. “I could say something like, ‘I trust you to work through this on your own. And, I want to be sure that I have guardrails in place in case it goes off the rails. So, can we check in on this again in a few weeks?’”

“That’s a great response,” Tony said. “What else could you say?”

“I could ask how I can know things are moving along okay, what signals I can monitor. And how I can know whether those signals are heading into the danger zone.”

“I use that one a lot. I find it really helps my people think through what signals they need to monitor. Sometimes getting an ‘I don’t know. Let me develop some options and get back to you,’ is the best way to protect myself and everyone else.”

“That’s two options; I always have at least three, so…,” Marla considered. “I could ask them what I should ask them.”

“Meta-questioning, nice,” Tony complimented. “I’m going to use that one myself,” he said, sending himself a quick email on his phone.

Take their frame of reference

“I have several good options now when they don’t want my help. Do you have any suggestions for better helping out when they do accept my offer?”

“You said you do active listening and probing questions,” Tony remembered. “How much are you putting yourself in their shoes as you do this?”

“Not at all,” Marla admitted.

“That can be really helpful,” Tony said. “Showing them you empathize with their point of view tends to increase trust in both directions. And, I often find I ask different questions when I’m coming from their point of view than I do from my own perspective. It may be my favorite tool.”

“I love it. This is going to really stretch me.”

Change the way you help to change your team

Just then, Marla’s phone chimed. Tony knew this meant it was time to wrap up.

“Great to see you today,” he told Marla. “Thanks for the meta-question idea. ‘What would you like me to ask you right now?’ will come out of my mouth a lot this next week.”

“You’re welcome,” Marla replied. “And thank you for all your help. Asking whether they want my help, and being okay if they don’t; ensuring I have guardrails in place to keep things from going off the rails, including signals I can monitor to tell when they’re about to; these are going to make a big difference in how confident I feel that I have things under control. And, I’m eager to discover how they affect my interactions with my teams.”

“You’re a great leader, Marla,” Tony affirmed. “You wouldn’t be where you are now if you weren’t. And, we always have space to lead even better. I’m excited to hear how things go for you.”

“Me, too,” Marla said with a grin.

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